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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Abu Dhabi anti-extremism centre finds its voice to counter the rhetoric of terror groups

Sawab Centre speaks to more than a million followers two years after launch

The Sawab Centre monitors messages from ISIL to counter them through social media platforms in English and Arabic. Courtesy Sawab Centre
The Sawab Centre monitors messages from ISIL to counter them through social media platforms in English and Arabic. Courtesy Sawab Centre

Amid the clutter of social media, the Sawab Centre has found a clear voice, two years after setting out to counter extremist propaganda and hate speech propagated by terrorist groups.

With more than 1.1 million followers on Facebook and 356,000 on Twitter, the joint UAE-US initiative has put out a series of campaigns, while monitoring messages from Isil to counter through social media platforms in English and Arabic.

On Monday, two years after its launch, it will spread messages on social media highlighting the reality of living life under Isil regimes, under the slogan #DaeshFraud. It is one of many aimed at countering the pro-Isil messages and publications like Dabiq and Rumiyah, that seek to tap into anger among young people that could become recruits.

“The centre doesn’t focus on blocking and deleting content produced by terrorists, but rather battles extremism by providing counter-narratives to the same audience,” said Farangiz Atamuradova, an analyst at the Abu Dhabi think tank the Delma Institute.

“Basing the centre in Abu Dhabi, rather than in a western country, is vital for providing a counter-terrorism narrative as Arabic-speaking individuals who are often targeted by organisations such as Daesh are more likely to accept a narrative coming from a source that not only speaks their language, but also understands their culture and traditions.”

She said the centre uses powerful messages, such as the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed, to counter violence.

“It provides examples of how terrorist groups such as Daesh are manipulating people’s beliefs, and tells the stories of individuals who were able to escape from Daesh and the hardships they faced under their rule,” Ms Atamuradova said.

“Terrorist organisations around the world rigorously use social media, and internet in general, as a means for spreading propaganda and recruiting individuals from around the world. Having various hard-to-trace mediums such as Telegram makes it not only harder for governments to tackle and counter terrorists, but also gives terrorist the benefit of recruiting individuals that may be on the opposite side of the world, so the centre is vital in the present day to counter-terrorist narratives.”

The centre targets people aged 15 to 35, in English an crucially, in Arabic.

“The centre’s core objective is to provide a counter-narrative on social media where Isil - like other terrorist groups - have developed fairly sophisticated strategies for transmitting ideology and recruitment online,” said Sabahat Khan, senior analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “Isil’s online operations have especially targeted vulnerable audience segments like youth and as we have observed recently, women. As such, it forms part of a mosaic of efforts to make sure Isil does not go unanswered on various social media platforms in relation to specific demographic audiences.”

One of the centre’s early campaigns focused on 'National Pride', highlighting the uniqueness and variety of Middle Eastern countries to encourage unity and help counteract radical thinking that obstructs the progress and prosperity of nations. Other content posted online by the centre, named after the Arabic word for “the right and spiritual path”, includes a combination of news, analysis and religious content.

“Our followers are mainly between the ages of 18 to 34,” Sawab Centre said in a statement. “It’s a positive sign but we’re also focusing on a category of silent people, those who are against radical thinking but don’t express their opinion, as well as the vulnerable and those who can easily be led astray – these are the people we are targetting.”

Another campaign it started with, called #ForceOfHumanity, focused on the conditions of those fleeing Isil’s acts and conflicts in the region, informing the public about healthcare services provided to vulnerable populations, including children’s vaccines, injury treatment, basic surgeries and hygiene maintenance.

“It is an important building block of the counter-Daesh strategy,” said Aaron Reese, senior analyst at the Delma Institute. “A centre dedicated to countering Daesh's narratives that operates within the region and can draw on the authority of religious leaders is crucial. The US, for example, can't speak on these issues with the same level of authority that a UAE-based institution can.”

In the coming months, Sawab plans on broadcasting campaigns filled with hope.

“The brainwashing carried out by Isil and its online propaganda allows us to gain more followers,” the centre said. “All those who share a common rejection of this ideology must join hands to come up with positive content to allow for a better countering of this propaganda.”